Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Swinton, William (1833–1892)
Author:
Southard, Sherry and Sharron Sims
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Although William Swinton held many titles during the course of his life (war correspondent, author, philological expert, professor, and translator), he is best remembered as one of Walt Whitman's friends. William and his older brother, John, became intimates of Whitman in the mid-1850s. The intense, yet short-lived friendship which formed between Whitman and Swinton was based on a common interest in philology. Fluent in several languages, Swinton indulged Whitman's fascination with the French language by becoming his tutor and translator, and stimulated his interest in language studies by introducing him to philological texts.

In 1855, Swinton accepted a job with the New York Times as a book reviewer, a position which enabled him to affect Whitman's literary career. He is believed to be the author of the unsigned review of Leaves of Grass (1856), which appeared in the Times on 13 November 1856. The review was strangely ambivalent; Swinton praised Whitman's skill as a poet, but viciously attacked his character, labeling him arrogant and indecent. Swinton also accused Whitman of manufacturing and publishing favorable reviews of the collection and exposed the fact that he published a private letter of praise from Emerson without the author's permission. Some believe that Whitman himself informed Swinton of these improprieties because he welcomed the attention a scandal would generate, an idea which would be consistent with the fact that the review seemed not to have affected the friendship in any negative way.

Of particular interest to Whitman scholars is Swinton's Rambles Among Words (1859), a collection of loosely connected etymological essays. Although the book is signed only by Swinton, some believe that the eleventh and twelfth chapters, as well as other sections of the book, were actually written by Whitman. These passages provide important insights into Whitman's theories of language, particularly concerning its evolution (nonstatic nature) and power.

Bibliography

Hollis, C. Carroll. "Whitman and William Swinton: A Cooperative Friendship." American Literature 30 (1959): 425–449.

"Swinton, William." Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. 18. New York: Scribner's, 1936. 252–253.

Warren, James Perrin. "Whitman as Ghostwriter: The Case of Rambles Among Words." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 2.2 (1984): 22–30.


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